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Brown withdraws guilty plea

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of December 15, 2011)
Photo of Richard Brown back in court

Just four days after standing before a judge and admitting he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients, former beachside attorney Richard Brown was back in court Monday – withdrawing his guilty plea.  He now will stand trial in the spring before the same judge who heard him admit his guilt.

Brown, who has been jailed now for months, presumably knows how the legal system works as he had been attorney since 1993. 

And last week, to the surprise of many, he agreed to a laundry list of charges.  After last week’s nine-minute hearing ended, Brown – disgraced, shackled and wearing a jail-issued jumpsuit – was sent back to his jail cell with the prospect of spending up to 50 years in prison hanging over his head.

Then, he changed his mind on his guilty plea.

Prosecutor Lev Evans said his hands were tied and to fight Brown’s efforts to go ahead with a trial would be futile because Brown’s attorney had made a mistake.

The mistake came with a complex mathematical formula that determines sentencing guidelines.   With the state’s math, Brown faced a minimum of 20 months in prison and a maximum of 50 years; Brown’s attorney had come up with a minimum of no days in jail and a maximum of 50 years.

The state’s math was correct.

But because both Brown’s attorney John Unruh and Judge Robert Pegg both talked about zero months to 50 years in jail last week, it’s only fair to assume that this was what  Brown was considering when he agreed to the plea deal.

Evans said he was unaware of the mistake until Unruh filed the motion to withdraw the plea and he himself went back to review the recordings of the Dec. 8 hearing.

Brown now intends to fight the charges before the judge who heard him admit his guilt Dec. 8.  The trial is likely to start sometime between March and May, said Evans.

Only a couple of years ago, Brown owned a law office in the Regatta building on A1A, but that deed to his unit was turned over to a bank in lieu of foreclosure and he headed south to Fort Pierce a year ago to continue practicing law.

By then, his marriage to Natalie Holtom Brown, a local interior designer, was ending.

In Fort Pierce, authorities said Brown continued to steal from his clients. He admitted that last week when Evans rattled off the names of his accusers and the amount of money he stole from them.

When asked last week if the charges were a true reflection of what occurred over the past year, Brown said one word – “Yes.”

Brown was first arrested in March for writing bad checks to the tune of $3,300 for a home he rented in the Bermuda Club here on the barrier island.

By the time the law caught up with him, he was living in Fort Pierce with his girlfriend Amanda Welch.  Prosecutors have granted Welch immunity in exchange for her cooperation.

In no time, more than a dozen charges were filed against him on allegations that he tried to steal from his wife’s bank account and that he unlawfully intercepted private e-mails between Holtom Brown and her attorney regarding the divorce proceedings.

He also was accused of taking money meant for St. Jude Hospital, a children’s cancer research facility and charity in Tennessee, when he was charged with looting the account of a dead client whose executor had also passed away.

Brown also is accused of taking upwards of $100,000 from the estates of two clients and thousands from other people in Indian River and St. Lucie counties.

Brown's initial decision last week to agree to the plea deal as opposed to allowing the case to play out in courtroom  surprised many people. When paperwork was filed to withdraw his plea, even more people scratched their heads.

Several of his victims attended Monday and last week’s hearings.   After both hearings, they huddled around Evans after Brown’s appearances. None of the victims want to speak publically about the matter.

Last week when it appeared that Brown was going to jail for at least 20 months, Evans told the victims that while it is not likely that the accused thief would serve the maximum sentence of 50 years in prison, it was highly unlikely that he would ever come out of prison and be able to pay them back.

Evans encouraged the victims to try and recoup some of their losses through the Florida Bar Compensation Fund. The program, created in 1967, will have a pool of roughly $2.2 million next year to help clients who have been cheated by their lawyers among other things.

Hundreds of cases are considered each year when the Florida Bar decides how much it can allocate to wronged clients.

That will now have to wait since Brown has now agreed to go ahead with a trial.

“We are not in bad shape,” Evans told the victims Monday.